Western Short Story
He came out of East Texas on the run, all the way into the heart of Colorado. He had no name, no face, no apt description of what he looked like … but he was a hero, a savior, and in a hurry to rustle outlaws off to jail, or to a fitting end to their careers of taking what was not theirs, including lives.
Freight driver Nornian Bunker was telling the sheriff of Molly’s Turf, a small settlement in Colorado, about his encounter with road agents and the sudden appearance of the new hero. “He don’t wear no hat, Sheriff, only what looks like a hood over his head, I swear to that. A hood, a black hood, but he shoots like he has eyes in the back of his head. First he wasn’t there and then he was, shootin’ at these three masked buzzards themselves who rode out of a draw to get the edge on me and my partner. I didn’t see them buzzards coming and I didn’t see him neither. They just was and he just was. ‘N’ he was all in black like he was hidin’ all of himself from me and my shotgun Dexy who’s still over to the saloon gettin’ drunk as ever ‘cause he couldn’t never make a move on his own. You go ask him that, Sheriff.”
Ab Pawson, Molly Turf’s sheriff, said, “All in black, you said, Bunker? All in black? Head to foot in black? From his hood to his boots, all in black? And on a big black horse?”
“That’s him, Sheriff. You got him pegged.” He said it like it was the honest truth and a good description of the man in a hood. “That’s what the man looks like, Sheriff. Just like that. I’d say you’d know him anywhere.”
Pawson saw only a hooded black bag at the back of his mind, a black bag sitting up on a big black horse, but he found some moments of true admiration for the man he would later dub The Hooded Specter. He did not say a word to anyone that he believed he at last had a working pard in the local law business.
It was in the latter part of the week that a rider dismounted and tied up in front of the sheriff’s office and the 3-cell jail. He walked into the office and demanded hot coffee from the sheriff who was standing at a small iron stove. The sheriff spun about at the demand to see his old friend, Sheriff Web Debner from Middler Cove in the middle of deep laughter.
“I got you that time, Ab, like you got me last.” They shook hands and slapped each other’s back. “What’s new with you, Ab”? You hire a deputy yet, like you said last time?” Debner was a broad-faced, honest-looking gent whose hair curled down his back and over his ears, all of it going with a broad and easy-going smile.
“No, Web, but I got me some help anyway, but he ain’t got a name I can tag on him, and I don’t know what he looks like, but he’s on my side, least out this way.” He shrugged his shoulders. Pawson was cut from the same mold as Debner and they could have passed for brothers, right from the facial part and the clothes they wore and the Colts they showed on their hips, more prominent than the badges pinned on their chests.
“Well, old pard,” Debner said, “I guess I can give you some information on this account, if that fellow you’re talkin’ about wears a black hood and dresses in all black duds and rides a black stallion tall as they come and calls him Black Star.” Both men paused in the matter, both of them filled with like images of a new hero to dwell on, to talk about at night in the saloon, all ears turned to hear what the lawmen had to say about the Hooded Specter, the new hero on horseback.
Pawson poured a cup of hot coffee for his old pal and asked, “You ever see this dude up close, Web? Real close? Does he have a name I can have? Can you draw a poster of him or tell someone what he looks like so he can draw one?”
Debner replied, “Never did see him, Ab, just heard about him and his horse like the damned horse is near part of him, the way a man dreams about his horse more than a woman. Moves like he’s of the same mind as the gent in black. He’s got to have some name, like you say.”
“For now,” Pawson said, “we call him the Hooded Specter. Leastwise that’s what the editor of the paper calls him when he writes about him coming to the rescue of folks in trouble. We were talking about a book we both had read”
“Hey, that’s pretty good handle for a gent like this, The Hooded Specter. Makes you want to sit up and cheer him on, whatever he’s at, don’t it? Where does that come from, Ab? From one of them books you’re always at when crooks are restin’ on their fixin’s?”
“You’re right on with this one, Web. Comes from a book a drummer dropped in my lap when I let him go free about a year ago. Gave me a book took me almost a year to read, front to back. It’s called The Three Musketeers, and the editor read it on a borrow and Jack Smithers has been near the same time as me getting through it like I did. It’s about a man in an iron mask, different from a hood but just as much hiding who he was, or is in this case.”
“Hell, Ab, makes me think right off about them leavin’s of the Spanish come up from Mexico all them years ago, like metal covers on their faces all the time. Hate to have been them tryin’ to cross the big river wearin’ all that stuff against pony arrows they was facin’ at the time. Sure way of drownin’ you ask me.
On the following Saturday morning, out on the road a dozen miles from Molly’s Turf, another crime was halted midway in its plans to rob a stagecoach of a money box. One of the passengers told Sheriff Pawson the next day during questioning, “I thought we were all going to be killed. Those three robbers were shooting and yelling all over the place like they were scaring us half to death. I was. Bullets flew over my head and down beside me when we were in the coach and when we got out and stood down on the road like babies. I sneezed once and one of them shot down at my feet so’s I could almost feel it.” The pause and the smile sweeping across his face announced a special note was coming, “Then he came!”
Pawson stood up, suddenly aware of what was coming, and said, “Who came?”
“The one they’ve been talking about, the hooded one, the gent all in black.”
“What’d he do?” Pawson said, leaning forward, expectant.
The talkative passenger replied, “He came from nowhere, and shot down two men clear off their saddles and wounded the third man in the arm.”
“He didn’t kill him, just wounded him in the arm?”
“Exactly,” said the passenger, seeming relieved that he had been around to answer a whole bunch of questions, counting himself lucky, having a hero of his own.
“It’s mighty strange,” Pawson answered, “because we found three graves out there, near where the coach was held up, but we found only two of their horses, if we assume this hooded one buried his victims, all three of them, in a Christian manner. We found three crosses on the graves made from branches. This hooded gent, this Hooded Specter we call him, continues to be a different kind of fellow.”
On Monday, a week later, early on a slow afternoon, three riders came into town at different times and vanished into the community. They did not go to the saloon or the hotel or the general store or the bank, usual places for strangers to attend to business and needs. And their horses were not tied off on the main road or stabled at the livery. Nobody in Molly’s Turf seemed to notice.
Not long after those entrances, three more riders came ambled into town as though there was nothing in the world to hurry for. Two of them came from one direction and the third man came from the other direction. They met in front of the bank and shook hands and slapped each other’s back like long-lost friends reunited. They looked like plain, trail-worn drovers coming off a long drive. None of them looked around the town. They did not look up or down the main road or at the buildings or at any of the people walking nearby.
After several minutes of talking and genuine camaraderie, they entered the bank. After several more minutes, when the bank door was thrust open and the bank president was thrust out to the front of the bank, a single shot was heard from inside the bank.
One robber fired back into the bank. The shot was heard all over Molly’s Turf, snapping for attention.
At that very moment, from the inside the livery, rushed a horseman all in black … the Hooded Specter, pistols in each hand as he raced toward the bank. His first shot was not at any of the robbers out front of the bank, but at a man with a rifle looking over the front edge of a town building facing the street. That rifleman fell forward and crashed through a small roof on an attached structure. His rifle fell beside him
The robbers, two of them carrying money bags and the third holding the bank president by his collar, rushed to untie their mounts at the rail in front of the bank.
A rifle shot came down from the front of a building across the street, at the hard-charging Hooded Specter who, in a rapid sequence fired at that rifleman, then loosed a round at the three robbers, and then let go a wild round at a third rifleman as part of a triangle of protection for the robbers. That third man fired a return shot that kicked up dust and dirt form the roadbed but did not hit the Hooded Specter.
The second rifleman had been hit and his rifle, in a clattering sound, bounced off a lower roof and fell butt-first again onto an empty box. A single slat of the box snapped at the crash.
The banker, let loose by one of the robbers, raced down the alley beside the bank. One of the thieves, his mouth full of curses, fired a single round after him, the shot missing its target.
One man carrying a bag of money was quickly mounted, sitting up in his saddle, when Sheriff Ab Pawson raced out of his office, gun in hand, and fired at the mounted man. He did not hit the man, but the horse dropped like a tree limb cut loose by a saw. The fall was quickly accompanied by a scream of pain as the man was caught under the weight of the horse. The bag of money fell away from him, onto the dusty road.
Onto the scramble of the other two robbers came two townsmen with rifles at the ready, and the sheriff coming up on the other side of the road.
The Hooded Specter, making a quick turn at his end of Molly’s Turf, came charging back, his guns ready, his eyes sweeping the tops of buildings for any rifleman still able to shoot. He saw nothing more of them, knowing one man had fallen, one man was wounded, and the third one had obviously vacated his premises to get his horse and get out of town.
One robber carrying the second bag of money, dropped the bag at his feet and raised his hands high over his head, so that they could be seen from wherever. The other robber, perhaps the man who had set up all the details of the robbery, whirled about with his guns in hand, saw the rifles aimed at him by townsmen, the sheriff on the run toward them, and the Hooded Specter, like a hero out of the ordinary, racing by them, headed for parts unknown, name unknown, future unknown.
The following week, Ab Pawson and Web Debner, enjoying an evening at the saloon in a quiet corner, spent some time talking about the Hooded Specter.
“No name on this critter yet, Ab?” Debner asked. “Nothin’ new?” He shook his head in full wonder and added, “Have you pieced any of this together, Ab? Know how it might have got done? It sure makes me wonder what the hell went on here in that robbery attempt. Sure is puzzlin’.”
“Well, Web, Here’s what I think … I told you about the three graves out near where the stagecoach was held up.”
“Yep, and good riddance to them three. We’d get along with less of them all the time. Sur makes the job easier.” Debner made a sour face as if it would follow the three dead men through eternity.
“I’d bet you dollars to flapjacks,” Pawson said, “that if we went out there and dug up them graves, we’d only find two bodies. I think our Hooded Specter took the wounded man away on his own horse after faking his burial, ‘cause we only found two horses out near there. Then I think he questioned that hombre about what was coming down the line for the gang. I bet he got all he wanted to know about the robbery they had planned for here. All the plans. All the details. I don’t know where that hombre is now, but I’d guess he’s better off where he is than where he could be.”
“Hell, Ab,” Debner said, “I never thought anythin’ like that. Why don’t we have a few more drinks and then go out there with a few of the boys and see if one of them graves is empty. I’d love that. Makes a hell of a tale to tell around a campfire or here in the saloon.”
Debner smacked his lips with delight.
“Not a chance with me for that, Web. I like to believe what I’m guessing at. Besides, two or three graves and take your pick, that Hooded Specter is a special man to take the hurried time to bury them, whatever the count, and then put markers on all the graves. Even for robbers or killers with all of eternity coming at them, they got a good parting shot from here, on this side of things.”
Debner nodded, raised his glass and said, “Here’s to him, and to you, Ab. The two of you are alike, and I’d bet on that.” He looked off, in the deepest of thought and said, “I don’t know where he is now, but I sure hope he comes down my way again. Sure would like to meet him face up.”
He raised his glass again in the new salute.
They both smiled because the glass was already empty.